July–August 2023

Small Wonders

Get to know your lycophytes—and ferns—with a new field guide by DNR botanist Welby Smith.

If you’ve spent much time in the forested areas of northern Minnesota, you may have noticed the small plants called lycophytes alongside your hiking trail, canoe portage, or cabin site. At a glance some lycophyte species resemble tiny pine or cedar trees; others look rather like mosses. These diminutive members of the plant kingdom are leafy plants, even if their leaves don’t exactly match our mental picture of leaves. Some species of lycophytes, in the right conditions, can grow in dense colonies on the forest floor; others can be found tucked into rocky crevices, lying low in fens, or even, in the case of a few outliers, growing in water.

As somewhat obscure, non-flowering plants, Minnesota’s lycophytes have not been extensively surveyed or catalogued—until now. The new book Ferns and Lycophytes of Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press), by Minnesota DNR botanist Welby Smith, is a detailed, photo-rich field guide that allows close observers of nature to identify the state’s 20 species of lycophytes and 80 species of ferns.

Smith looked all over the state for these species as part of his work for the DNR’s Minnesota Biological Survey, in recent years often balancing book research with ongoing fieldwork.

“We covered pretty much the whole state, looking in all native natural habitats, because we didn’t know what we were going to find at first,” says Smith, who frequently was accompanied by photographer Richard Haug. “We had a general idea where lycophytes occur, but we didn’t have enough specific information to write a book about them. So we looked everywhere. Of course, we didn’t find lycophytes everywhere. We found them mostly in the northern forested area.”

Smith hopes the book will prove valuable not just to professional and amateur botanists but to anyone who feels a bit of wonder and curiosity when observing nature closely. 

“I’ll be very glad to get the book into the hands of people who might use it. I hope it might enlighten a few people’s trips into the Boundary Waters or out of doors. They might be able to use this as a tool to learn things, to recognize things that they might have seen before but didn’t really know much about.”